Nicholas Crane Recommends the Best Travel Writing of 2017
From the beautiful architectural heritage of Britain's 100 Best Railway Stations to Robert Twigger's awe-inspiring journeys in the Himalayas, Nicholas Crane, author of The Making of the British Landscape gives his recommendations for the best travel writing of 2017, exclusively for Waterstones.
This short, digital excursion into the world of excellence begins at a railway station: Wemyss Bay, in Scotland. Its sunlit, spider’s web of girders and trusses decorate the cover of Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations, surely the most beautiful train book ever published. After England’s Thousand Best Churches and England’s Thousand Best Houses, Simon Jenkins has poured his architectural passions into landmarks often overlooked in the rush to depart and arrive. This a book to delight every traveller in the land.
East Country by Jules Pretty is a literary lullaby; a reverential meander through the border country of Essex and Suffolk in the company of Robert Macfarlane, Basho, W.G. Sebald and others who see the world reflected in a dewdrop. Inspired by A Sand Country Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s seasonal ramble through Wisconsin in the 1940s, the author of East Country pins his seventy-four place-making stories to the twelve months of the year. This is an important, beautiful book, not least because the curlew calls and crunching waves that suffuse its pages are mixed with whispered, timely echoes of Leopold’s land ethic.
Patrick Barkham’s Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago, plays hopscotch around our coast, starting big in the west with the self-governing nation of Man and finishing in the east on an uninhabited scrap of Essex called Ray Island. Eleven islands; eleven people, for it is the author’s contention that an island is the planet’s closest geographical approximation to a person. This is an enchanting lyrical book of many wonders; a book of coasts and heartlands; peripheries and interiors; a harmony of travel and nature writing; a book for rucksack and bedside.
Earlier this year, I took my own book to the Winter Words Festival in Pitlochry, where I bumped into a sailor from the Isle of Lewis. Ian Stephen’s Waypoints: Seascapes and Stories of Scotland’s West Coast, kept me enthralled on the long train ride south. The salt-water passages are other-worldly and accompanied by retellings of traditional tales. This is also a book about islands, but instead of terra firma, the reader’s feet are braced against the timber decking of sailing boats. I was transported: ‘Slow the tree and let the timber ring; Sap-damp planking needs to breathe.
Before we leave our island shores, I urge you to read The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border, by Garrett Carr. Landscapes are inscribed with many kinds of lines suitable for adoption by peripatetic scribes. Watersheds and rivers, A-roads, coastlines and biographical ‘life-lines' will all provide stories aplenty, not least because they are conduits of human connections; conductors of compelling themes. But borderlines are divisive. They exist to interrupt human narratives. They are ruled to divide. So a book about a border walk has to work on the weak links: the gaps and irregularities where topography and borderers outwit political history. Garrett Carr has written the book of our time. This is a poignant, funny, memorable read, layered with ideas.
Many years ago, a wartime DC3 flew a bunch of British journalists across Australia’s Simpson Desert and it was on that rattling, thermal-thumping flight that I bonded with the author of Alaskan Lonely Hearts Club. At the time, Paul Gogarty was chief travel writer with the Daily Telegraph. This book (I wrote the foreword) is an A–Z of travellers’ tales by a writer whose sensory antennae are perpetually alert for cultural curiosities; for glimpsed sights, sounds and smells; for strangers with time to talk; for half-open doors in unfamiliar places. It needs confidence and humility. I learned a lot on that trip. Included in these alphabet-episodes are a holiday centre in Great Yarmouth and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville; Funzi Island (it’s south of Mombasa) and Ilulissat, a town in Greenland where sledge dogs outnumber humans.
In White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas, Robert Twigger takes his well-tested curiosity (he’s the author, you remember, who sprang into the ring with Angry White Pyjamas: An Oxford Poet Trains with the Tokyo Riot Police) to the world’s greatest mountain range. This is less the world of ice-pick and crampon than of pundit, guru and mystic for as much as anything, Twigger’s is a journey into the Himalayas of his imagination in which we met an extraordinary cast of characters, from Younghusband to Aleister Crowley to Madame Blavatsky, the inventor of theosophy. I’ve always found my mind wandering in mountains. This is a book of strange and wonderful people and places; proof perhaps that the point about mountains – at least from a human perspective – is the mental space they provide.
The ‘city of the world’s desire’ occupies that geographical bottleneck between Asia and Europe. Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes is a monumental book about a monumental place. Ten years in the making, this is a magisterial biography about a place born by a flood brought about by climate change; a place that grew to shape the wider world. This book will sit on my shelves beside a select family of urban lives that include Jan Morris on Venice, Robert Hughes on Barcelona, Peter Ackroyd on London. I once walked to Istanbul from Spain; now I’ll have to go back with this book in my pack.
Finally, the books on my desk that I’m eager to start. Anna Pavord’s perfectly-formed Landskipping is now in paperback, which means that I can take it on my next train journey. There has never been a more important time to celebrate and engage with our home landscapes and Pavord is the perfect companion.
I’m intrigued by Hugh Warwick’s Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain’s Fragmented Wildlife. I really like the idea of exploring the ecological effects of all those lines: hedges and dykes, walls, ditches and so on. Where the Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt follows the author’s journeys on foot along the paths of four of Europe’s named winds – a clever geographical theme which will bring much pleasure (and climatic pertinence).
Coming down the tracks is Beneath Another Sky: A Global Journey into History by Norman Davies, a great historian who has circumnavigated the world for his forthcoming book. And then I’m anticipating with eagerness a new edition of Wendell Berry, poet, environmental activist and Kentucky farmer. Paul Kingsnorth has made a selection of Berry’s essays spanning five decades. It’s titled The World-Ending Fire.